Ethical blogs and marketing can make it seem like the first step to buying better is, well, buying.
But I say that’s thinking in the wrong direction. I was commissioned by the college ministry at my church to talk about “ethical fashion” this month and I might have confused them a little in last week’s lesson, because I didn’t talk about consumption at all.
Instead, I talked about the false narrative of scarcity in our capitalist, individualistic culture.
Scarcity claims that:
- there’s not enough to go around
- we must circle the wagons, putting our self-interest ahead of the needs of others
- we are inadequate, and the solution is to hoard goods and buy more
I also shared the counter-narrative of abundance.
- there is plenty to go around
- we are valuable and valued
- our lives need not be driven by a fear-based need for more
I believe we must internalize this life-giving narrative before we can begin to consider our consumption. After all, if we don’t know what drives us to consume in the first place, we are still being controlled by outside forces. And that means we are still susceptible to the toxic pull of over-consumption, keeping up with the Joneses (or FOMO), and stress shopping.
These are my top 5, very simple suggestions for consuming more sustainably…
1. Buy less.
Were you going to go shopping this weekend? Here’s an idea: don’t.
Go apple picking. See a movie. Go bowling. Do anything at all besides shopping for new goods and see how you feel. In my experience, a lot of shopping is done out of boredom, or to fulfill social needs. If you can find a way to cure the boredom and see your friends without going to Target or the mall or online, do that instead.
2. Ditch the straws, plastic wrap, and coffee lids.
It is estimated that Americans use as many as 500 million straws per day, and they’re typically not recycled. Straws are not biodegradable. They break down into ever smaller pieces, making their way into oceans where they wreak havoc on wildlife.
If you can resist some of the most common single use plastics, like straws, plastic wrap, and coffee lids, you can make a big impact. When you’re out and about, simply say, “I don’t need a straw/lid” to your server. When you’re at home, consider putting leftovers and cut fruit and vegetables in reusable containers. I keep one reusable container in my fridge at all times, and fill it with onions, peppers, and whatever else needs to be sealed.
3. Upcycle, swap, or buy secondhand.
One of my readers just told me that the thrift shop she frequents gets 10,000 donated items in every single day! Americans discard or donate 14 million tons of clothing each year, and only 20% of clothing donated is actually sold in charity shops each year due to saleability and overall demand. The crisis is two-fold: we buy too much new stuff and we don’t buy enough used stuff.
The solution starts with step one of this post – buy less – but the problem can also be alleviated by reusing secondhand goods. If your pants are too short, consider cutting them into crops. If you’ve never like the way that dress fit, see if a tailor can fix it for you. Instead of buying a new dress for that wedding, see if you can borrow one from a friend. And, by all means, go thrift shopping.
If you’re looking for specific items, try searching on ebay or poshmark.
4. Eat less meat.
Many hobby environmentalists claim that the best way to reduce human-caused climate change in the food industry is to shop local. But according to this study, transportation accounts for only 4-5% of greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest culprit is meat production, and more specifically, feeding and raising cows (“red meat accounts for about 150 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than chicken or fish”).
Global demand for beef is also bad for the rainforest. Conservationists estimate that 65-70% of Amazon Rainforest deforestation from 2000 to 2005 was because of the meat industry.
Consider cutting your meat consumption in half, or at least to once a day if you’re a voracious meat eater. Find some hearty bean dishes on my Pinterest board.
5. Save up for quality buys.
Instead of buying cheap, ill-fitting things that don’t particularly suit your taste, consider saving up for high quality items. If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned from nearly 5 years of blogging on conscious consumerism, it’s that attention to details matters, in the way you feel in your clothes and in how long the garment will last.
I no longer get sticker shock over a $100 item when I know the quality is good and the manufacturers were treated fairly. The trick is to balance your expensive items with good quality, secondhand and upcycled items. Here’s a lesson, too: sometimes you can get really good stuff cheaply on the secondhand market, you just need to keep your eyes peeled for natural fibers, conventional brands that care about quality, and silhouettes that suit your style and frame.
There are hundreds of other ways to make a small impact, but I think it’s important that we get good at the things that don’t hurt too much before launching into more aggressive changes.
What changes have you implemented that you think are good building blocks for people just getting started?
My Scarcity and Abundance talk was based on Walter Brueggemann’s essay, The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity: Consumerism and Religious Life.